This is an interesting fictional narrative written by Daniel Jensen, special for CHD. It is a passionate look at the journey from grade school to the pros as written from the writer’s mind’s eye.
Chants of “One More Year” reverberate across the hardwood as the eighteen-year old boy stands at the free throw line; this brief delay in action an occasion for the boy to reflect on where all of this began.
The dream begins, as it always does, with a lone boy and a basketball. Maybe the boy plays in a dusty driveway down a deserted road in West Texas; unrelenting heat coaxing sweat from his skin as he practices the same crossover again and again. And again. Maybe he plays under the yellow glow of a streetlight, amidst piles of snow and ice patches indicative of a New York winter; his gloved-hands holding a perfect follow-through as the ball splashes through a chain net. For the tenth time in a row. And still he retrieves the rock, because if he hit ten straight – why not see if he can get to eleven? He was born to do this, and when he plays against boys his age, it shows. His peers try desperately to contain him, but the gap between he and them is too great. He doesn’t feel himself getting better and he grows bored. He knows that to realize his dream he must be better.
So the boy sits on the sidelines of the high school pick-up game, hoping secretly for an injury or fatigue to set in so that he can join the fray. When he does get his opportunity, his slight, awkward youth frame is easily pushed off course by the monster-boy in the paint, who laughs at the thought of a grade school kid in his post. Yet the laughing stops when the skinny boy finally gets a touch and executes a picture-perfect crossover of the Monster on his way to the hoop. Just like that, he belongs. The one go-to move becomes five. He’s closer to his dream but he must be better.
He’ll belong with the older boys until he himself is the monster-boy. He’s the best player in his town and the next. Wearing his high school colors proudly, he dominates in front of his parents and friends. Thousands pour through the gym doors, forking over a few dollars here and there. But he doesn’t feel himself getting better, and again, he grows bored. To the people in the stands he is more than enough, but he knows that to realize his dream he must be better.
So he joins the AAU circuit. All around the country he travels, the boy beats a California boy and then an Indiana boy. Maybe somewhere on the steaming summer blacktop the New York boy’s path crosses the Texas boy’s path. All the while, salivating men take all of this in, their polos stitched with the logos of name-brand programs. Other, nameless men, eager to throw a wink or nod, litter the sideline, their Rolex watches visible under their cuff-linked sleeves. Here the boy is fawned-over and trumped-up, his ego swollen by the injected sweetness of whispered nothings in his ear. For the first time, the dream is becoming real. And the wild benefits and luxuries that come to those who achieve his dream are intoxicating. But the men in polos are there to remind him of the drinking age.
Instead of the intoxication brought on by his dream, a scholarship is presented as an award for the boy’s talent. At first it’s not so bad, as dusty driveways and rusty rims fade out to gleaming arenas and ESPN interviews. His Twitter becomes flooded with the eager hopes of a massive fan base intent to embrace their new prodigy. His talent and years of hard work shine through immediately; his effect on the team instantaneous. Tens of thousands pack the arena to get a glimpse. Back home, his family and friends hang up the High School colors and don threads of their new University allegiance. He is their native son, a mercenary under a new banner. The boy is getting better than ever before, his talent tweaked and adjusted by suited men whose talent is to tweak and adjust. His minor weaknesses are exploited by suited men on opposite sidelines, who push their own talented boys to rip and pry at the seams of his game. The boy watches other talented boys around him get ripped to shreds by coaches and media. Even he, the most talented of the bunch, has drawn the ire of the suited man on his sideline and the fickle fans on his campus.
Smiling people on television bicker over his few poor decisions and swell a tide of negativity. Every move is dissected and analyzed, every misstep somehow a sign of imminent negative trends. To the doubters, every hole in his game is a crater. The threat of injury hangs over his head like a dark cloud, it’s lightning ready to strike upon an ankle or a knee. Ego and reputation already bloodied and bruised, he absorbs the best shots from other talented boys and battles against the determined strategies of famous sideline generals. He mutes the television. Headphones block out the arena noise. He finds weaker seams in his opponents and he adjusts expertly. He wins. And, like before, he wins again. Coaches get raises and television contracts get signed and the turnstiles keep turning. He has become the face of his University, it’s colors and mascots pack his closet. For this he is grateful and proud. But the nameless men, with their expensive watches, no longer remain content to sit idly by and watch the boy.
From the periphery, they come to remind the boy of his original dreams. His dreams of reaching the pinnacle of his craft. His dreams of getting better by learning and playing against the best to walk this earth. They point to the constantly rotating turnstiles, the gleaming campus arenas, and the number of zeroes on the paychecks the suited men on his sideline cash. Because of you, they say, the money has flowed. Shouldn’t he, the spring that feeds that flow, enjoy the life that it brings?
Talented men, who were once boys like him and have since achieved his dream, prod him to join them in the Elite. They talk of their exotic cars and gated homes, their financial freedom and worldwide notoriety. They remind him of the legends that opened the gates for them, as they are for him. They ask…is Johnson Magic because of what he achieved at Michigan State? Is Jordan The Greatest because of the baseline jumper he made clad in Carolina Blue? No, they say. Magic is Magic for the wins he accumulated against the best. Jordan never becomes The Greatest if he doesn’t suit up and dominate the men who held the throne before him. Those are the dreams you set out to achieve, they remind him. And he remembers all of those jumpshots in dusty driveways and crossovers on frozen blacktop. All of that was for this. He has finally proven he is good enough.
His focus back on the present, amidst the desperate chants, the boy smiles as he lets the free throw fly.
He appreciates these moments, but this just isn’t his dream.